Recruiting   Retention   Building Communities   NCWIT   Our sponsors

The computer industry would benefit greatly from increased diversity in its workforce. Furthermore, the industry is looking toward an extended period of growth, with great job prospects and entrepreneurial opportunities. Indeed, a shortage of skilled workers may be the biggest barrier the industry faces. Majoring in CS is far and away the most sought-after credential for entering the industry. Yet CS departments have not been able to attract women and minority students in large numbers. Women make up 10-20% of undergraduate CS majors, African-American and Latino/a students fewer than 5% - and these numbers have held steady for over ten years, through booms and busts.

Since my time as director of undergraduate programs in CS, I have been trying to attract a more diverse student body in my department. We need to deal with two problems: low intake numbers (recruiting) and high drop-out rates (retention). These problems can't easily be separated, because low numbers is one of the principal reasons for low retention - students from underrepresented groups feel out of place - and students will not apply if the department is perceived as not welcoming. Nonetheless, it is clear that the more pressing problem is recruiting: even if we retained all our women and minority students, their numbers would still be very low.


Our activities are aimed at high school students. Although many studies show that the students we want to target start to lose interest in math and science earlier than high school, it is also very difficult to address the issue at that level. Instead, we are trying to find students who are thinking about college plans and may not have given much thought to a career in computers, and reach them with a message about the advantages of majoring in CS.

  • ChicTech is our high school "road show," where our own students - and sometimes alumni - address groups of girls in their high schools. We reach hundreds of high school girls each year.

  • The Technical Ambassadors Competition (TAC) is a competition for teams of high school girls. They need to use computers in some way to help a non-profit or governmental organization. The emphasis is on showing how using computers involves teamwork and creativity, and can actually help people - favorite non-profits are food banks, student ministries, and animal shelters; minimal technical skills are needed (although the teams usually end up learning a lot).

  • Games 4 Girls (G4G) is a competition for teams of college girls to develop games targeted at high school girls. Judging the entries is one of high points of the ChicTech retreat:

  • ChicTech retreat. The retreat is a weekend for the TAC competitors to spend in our department. There are lots of fun activities, including playing the G4G games; teams present their projects in public and winners are announced the second day.


We believe the biggest cause of low retention of women and minority students - that is, the differential between retention of those students and retention of the majority students - is the sense of isolation that comes from being a minority. Another contributing factor is that some of the majority students have considerable experience with computers before entering our program, which leaves other students feeling intimidated and discouraged; this effect seems to have a greater impact on the students who are already from underrepresented groups. We have tried to address the first issue by building communities of these students, and the second by curricular changes.

  • The center of our retention activities for women is the Women in CS club (WCS). With help from the NSF and many LCS) as well. We do not yet have a ChicTech-like outreach program, but LCS engages in many of the same activities as WCS.

  • We try to start our students off feeling a part of the department by having a freshman orientation activity each year (for all students). For the past few years, this has been an activity we call scavenger hunt, which gives students an opportunity to meet each other and learn something about the campus and department. (Although this activity involves walking around campus, we designed it very carefully to allow handicapped students to participate without any disadvantage; you can read more about the scavenger hunt in our SIGCSE paper.)

Building Communities

Our activities have been supported by a $1M dollar grant from NSF (CNS 04-20505), entitled Building Communities. This project is a partnership of six central Illinois colleges, with Illinois as the lead institution. I am PI on the project, and Sonya Harris is the coordinator of the project.


The National Center for Women and Information Technology (www.ncwit.org) is the leading national organization devoted to increasing the participation of women in CS. We have been members since its inception (2004). In May, 2008, we hosted their bi-annual meeting. (Many Academic Alliance members presented "unposters" - flyers describing some NCWIT-related activities; here's a pdf containing all of them.)

Corporate sponsorship

Lack of diversity in CS is a national problem, and is recognized as such by both government and industry. In addition to our basic support from the National Science Foundation noted above, we have received generous donations for our activities from a number of companies: Microsoft, State Farm, Lcckheed Martin, Boeing, and Morgan Stanley. The following companies and individuals have given awards and scholarships aimed at students from underrepresented groups: AT&T, Cisco Systems, Lockheed Martin, Motorola, Proctor & Gamble, Qualcomm, Rockwell Collins, Spyglass, State Farm, Verizon, and William and Ruth Witt and Susan Silver and Ross Erlebacher.

    Last updated on Thu Sep 5 15:02:32 CDT 2013